Alt-geek culture is broken - indymedia
An introduction to a "unspoken" problem. Everything is "pointless" in till you do something "that is not", if we keep repeating the pointless stuff were/when is the "that is not" going to happen?
An example of the geek problem can be found in the flowing and fading of radical alt/grassroots media at the peek of the #openweb
The basis of any new media is the technology it is transmitted/mediated by. In the case of newspapers this is the printing press, and for radio and TV it is access to the transmission spectrum. The open internet changed this "traditional" media which was based on a world of (vertical) analogue scarcity. As the accessing technology improved, it created a radically (horizontal) digital media space.
This was intently filled with (naive in a good sense) alt-media such as the Indymedia project (IMC). In this post I am looking at how this was killed off by internal geek/process dogmatism at the same time as its space was colonised by new/mainstream such as blogging and social media.
We are now coming full circle to where we started with closed client/server, algorithm-determined, gatekeeper, for-profit networks dominating media production and consumption. The corporate gate keeping venture capital driven (and invisible ideology) algorithm is the new printing press/broadcast spectrum that we started the century with.
What part did radical geeks play in this?
Let's look at the successful global indymedia project, which was based on open publishing and open process through a centralised server network. Before this the radical video project undercurrents, while not so open, was again based on a technical hub. They had the only free digital editing suite for production of grassroots video, thus anyone wanting to produces radical content was funnelled though this grassroots gatekeeper. With IMC, it was publishing to their hosted servers.
The indymedia network was setup in the very avant-gardist open model that was to dominate the internet for a time. Like undercurrents it succeeded because of its technical centralisation – the server was the ONLY place citizen journalist content could be published without hard technical knowledge. This monopoly was later lost to the growth of individualistic blogging platforms and later corporate social media. But what I want to argue here is that it died before this due to internal (process) pressures.
Indymedia was set up on the open, open, open, open, pseudonymous model.
* Open source (free software)
* Open publishing (post-publishing moderation)
* Open licence content (non commercial re-use)
* Open process (everything was organised on public e-mail lists, open meetings)
* Pseudo-anonymous (you didn’t have to provide an e-mail address or a real name to publish)
Let's look as some of the pragmatism that allowed the project to take off:
* The project was initially pragmatic about open source as it used the closed realmedia (RM) video streaming codec and servers. But the core project was committed to the free software path where technically possible.
* Open publishing was the basis of the project, things could only be hidden (not removed) because they broke a broad public editorial guideline. Even then they were added to a background page so were still public. In this the publishing process was naïvely open.
* Open licence stayed with the project to the end.
* Open process was gradually abandoned, a clique formed then fought and split, this was the main reason the project ossified and could not adapt to keep its relevance in the changing world of blogs and social media.
* (Pseudo) anonymity was part of the abandonment of open process and led down many of the technical dead ends that finally killed the relevance of the project to most users.
Lets look at this final one in more depth
Firstly, it's important to realise that any attempt at anonymous publishing in a client server relationship even at its most restrictive and paranoid would produce pseudo anonymity. ie. you might be able to hide from your mates and your employer but you cannot hide from the “powers that be” if they are interested in subverting your server and its internet connection.
The internet is inherently naïvely open, its built that way, this is why it works. The recent Edward Snowdon leaks highlight this to the wider public view.
- the integrity of the ISP and hosting was always based on trusting a tiny anonymous minority of geeks
- the physical security of the server could never be guaranteed.
- as the project process closed the identity of these core geeks became tenuous/invisible.
In activism just as the man driving the white van repeatedly turned out to be the police/corporate spy, the invisible server admin is the obvious opening for the same role – am not saying this is what existed, rather just trying to highlight how you cannot build a network based on this closed client server infrastructure/culture that IMC became. Given the open nature of the internet, it became dangerous to push IMC as an anonymous project.
There were four fatal blocks:
- the repeated blocks and failure and delay of decentralisation of the servers to the regions.
- the blocks on aggregation, then the closed subculture aggregation that final happened as a parallel project
- the focusing on encrypted web hosting and self-signed certificates put a block on new non-technical users that proved termanaly offputting.
- the failed "security theater" of not login IP address locally on the server as a limited security fig leaf. They could simply be logged on the ISP/open web instead.
These, together with a shrinking of the core group, led to the project becoming irrelevant in the face of the growth of more openly accessible blogging and then social media.
Let's get positive and suggest some ways the IMC project could have flourished and still be a dominant grassroots project:
* The base level of the project should have actively decentralised as the technology matured to make this feasible. Every town needed its own DIY run server.
* Then regional aggregation using RSS (really simple syndication) would make this grassroots media presentable as outreach media.
* A national aggregation site could then have compete directly with the (then) declining traditional media outlets.
* Recognising that the IMC project was pseudo-anonymous at best, IMC could have built a parallel encrypted peer-to-peer gateway app/network to feed into this to provide true(ish) anonymity for publishers to this ongoing open media project.
* The decentralisation would have been a force to keep the process open by feeding though new people/energy – this would have naturally balanced the activist clique forming/closing in the centre.
* As blogging became popular and matured these could have been “ethically” aggregated into the network to build a truly federated global open media network such as http://openworlds.info is working to be.
* Social networking could have been added as an organic part of this flourishing federated network.
If this had happened, it's not too much to say that the internet would have been a different place to where it is now. The IMC project highlights some of the failures of activist/geek culture. If we are to (re)build the open web we need to learn from this and move on.
(find photo of indymedia Sheffield masked up photo)
This is sadly not a metaphor for an open media project
It should be obvious to people now that even the most paranoid centralised closed internet is only pseudo-anonymous at best. We need to learn how to live with "open" to build the world we want to see. And our geeks fighting for closed are actually a problem for us, just as much as "them".
Activism and flaring egos go hand in hand
Activism and flaring egos go hand in hand
Well that almost went well with editing the headboards for the activist project. Shame on us all for it degenerated into shit behaver for the last 45 min.
Its understandable X wanting a say on the project – an open way to do it would have been to say lets make some changes to this KEY doc and discus it for a bit. Then do it.
The doc had been though at least 4 drafts and was waiting for a polish at this stage. This drafting had shaped it as a “open process” with out the “you-me” that often peppers language. The definitions (subjects) were all outside on the boards rather than in the intro. This left open and inviting space to take part.
At this stage while all ready over time the way people acted was like lighting a match to a messy explosion. When Y attempt to mediate then closed the job half done, with Z coming in blind, a nasty mess was (hopefully) resolved in a nasty way. We did not need this to happened.
Open process is not a solution but it helps.
The Activists - FUCKED UP USE of corporate social media
It consistently amazed me how activists walked into the trap of corporate social networking. I can understand NGO groups narrowness of focus, its were the funding is. I can understand traditional media's embracing of Facebook, Twitter and the closed ecosystem of app stores as its a perceived as a “safe” place to run from the crumbling business markets they are part of.
Lets look at each in turn:
Corporate social networking is perfect for the less radical charity's as the company's running theses networks wont to be seen to be social responsible and charity’s are the perfect place to be seen to care with out the risk of upsetting sponsors, advertisers and investors.
The more progressive parts of the traditional media, such as the FT have realised the trap they leapt into when building inside Facebook, Twitter etal. And are now back to prioritising building on the open web using HTML5. The less progressive side are now negotiating from a weak postion with these new powerful gatekeepers.
10 years ago Activist media was a worldwide phenomenon, inventing and leading many of the technology and techniques that are now mainstream. But two things happened, firstly they got bogged down in “activist process” and on the other the “lifestyle of geek” open-source culture. These together slowed innovation to a stop, the functionality and reach of such new networks as Facebook and Twitter rendered this moribund activist media less relevant to new generations of activists such as the climatecamp media team. Leaving space for the NGO focus embracing of corporate social media on one hand and the manipulation of traditional media on the other as the main ongoing successful strategy.
Were are we now? I was at the party to cover the celebrate of the death of Margaret Thatcher recently in Trafalgar sq. The were hundreds of cameras both video and stills probably as many people filming and documenting as there party goers or police. But almost no radical media made it online, the was a smattering of wonabe mainstream media such as Vice and Demotix. What interested me was running into all the retired activist and the ones that now work for NGO's it struck me that the is no continuity, no new radical media, it had almost completely ended. Few small exception’s to this are ourselves (visionontv) and ONN who are both small fish.
As I sead at the time, we as activist's fucked up in two ways: in wholesale embracing of corporate social media and in the narrowing of activist tec into geek lifestyle. Can we learn from this? Its time to reinvent grassroots bottom up media – its not to late.
Why indymedia has the "site is untrusted message"
Have you always wondered why IMC sites have the horrendous go away this site is dangerous message in most web browsers. Its because of this:
----- START Explanation from ****, **** -----
Security is a two-way street. When I go to a web site I have to prove to the web site that it's really me before the web site gives me access to anything private or restricted (such as access to my email). The most common way that is done is via a login in which I provide a username and a password. Because I supply the correct password, the server knows it really is me, because I'm the only one who knows my password.
But how do I know that the server I'm going to really is the server I want to go to? Just because I type https://docs.indymedia.org/ into my browser, doesn't mean that the server really is the Indymedia server that I think it is. Any number of things can happen via the Internet between my computer and the server I'm connecting to that might fool my computer into thinking I'm connecting to docs.indymedia.org when in fact I'm connecting to someone else's server specifically setup to look like the Indymedia server. If that were to happen, I might type in my username and password on this stranger's server that is acting like docs.indymedia.org, essentially handing over my identity to a stranger.
The purpose of security certificates is to ensure that the site I'm connecting to really is the one run by Indymedia.
Unfortunately, the technology for setting up this system is fundamentally flawed. It works like this:
* most major browsers, even free/open source ones like Firefox, are pre-configured to trust a pre-defined set of for-profit corporations to verify the identity of all web sites on the Internet.
* web site maintainers are expected to pay $75 or so to these corporations in exchange for a digital certificate verifying that we are who we say we are.
* once this digital certificate is installed on the web server, browsers will access the secure web site without any errors.
If you don't pay $75 for the certificate, then most people will get a security error. There's a word for a setup like this. It's called a "racket."
Rather than play this racket, Indymedia uses cacert.org to sign it's security certificates. cacert is a nonprofit organization that signs certificates for free. cacert is not pre-installed on most browsers, however, you can install it by following the directions here: http://wiki.cacert.org/BrowserClients If you install the cacert certificate, your browser will automatically trust all indymedia web sites that have been signed by cacert, so you will no longer get any error messages when you access them. However, in addition, your browser will trust *all* web sites signed by cacert (which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how cautious you are).
----- END Explanation -----
So, this addresses the "problem" that many of us experienced for many years. Its actually a nice opportunity for political education!
However, my understanding is that since last summer, even this explanation won't completely address the problem with the global site... I consulted with a few people offlist before responding to this because I didn't want to add to the confusion. It appears that our security certificate for the global server has explicitly been revoked – see: https://lists.indymedia.org/pipermail/imc-tech/2011-June/0602-g4.html It appears that this may have taken place in conjunction with the conflicts in the UK group. So, even if you import the cacert certificate to your browser (following the instructions below), you may still get a problem connecting to the site. I'm not sure if this means that we can never again have a viable certificate through cacert or whether we have to purchase one from the racket that **** refers to?
Hope this is helpful, ****